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Understanding geopressure mechanisms using micro-mechanics

Yaping Zhu*, Statoil

Geopressure (or overpressure) presents significant risks to
drilling if not predicted accurately. To better understand
mechanisms of abnormal fluid pressure, I choose an
inclusion-based micromechanical model by using the
concept of eigenstrain and characterize the microstructure
of rocks as a product of the compaction processes. Analysis
and numerical tests demonstrate that fluid pressure and
effective velocities are functions of the microstructure (e.g.,
shape of inclusions) and the stress state of the rock, which
suggests the possibility of linking pressure and velocities to
geological parameters.
Abnormal pore pressure has become an increasingly
important issue in exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and
often results in drilling hazards such as kicks, mud
volcanoes, wellbore instability, and lost circulation (Sayers,
2006). Commonly used pressure prediction approaches
such as Eatons (1975) and Bowers (1995) methods
generally focus on building empirical relationship between
observed geophysical properties (e.g., velocity) and pore
pressure, which, although work well for many applications,
may also cause large errors in the prediction due to high
uncertainty in the estimate of velocities and the lack of
understanding of the relationship between geophysical
properties and microstructural features of the rocks.
In this study, I use a micromechanical pore pressure
prediction model by representing rocks as matrix with
spheroidal inclusions (pores and cracks). By introducing
the concept of eigenstrain, I represent fluid pressure
through confining stress and residue pressure, properties of
rock components (minerals and fluids), as well as the
characteristics of the microstructure of the rock (e.g., the
shape and alignment of inclusions). Effective physical
properties such as velocity are then calculated using
differential effective medium theory.
The proposed method allows a study of the behavior of
effective properties in response to different in-situ rock
properties such as fluid pressure, porosity, and crack
density. It also allows an understanding of various
mechanisms related to geopressure (e.g., Zoback, 2007).
For example, during normal compaction process, rocks
behave as a drained (a.k.a. open) system where fluid is
expelled at the same time as formation porosity is reduced
and cracks are closed. This results in an increase of velocity
as a function of effective stress. When the formation
permeability becomes too low to maintain the free fluid
flow into and out of the system, compaction disequilibrium

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starts to develop. This causes the formation to become an

undrained (a.k.a. closed) system and fluid pressure starts to
build up above the hydrostatic pressure. During the thermal
expansion or maturation process, microcracks may be
generated in response to elevated fluid pressures. The
presence of microcracks can have pronounced effects on
velocity and anisotropy, thus providing potentially useful
attributes for estimating abnormal pressure zones.
Hereafter the discussion is limited to spheroidal inclusions,
whose shape can be characterized with the aspect ratio ,
ratio of the semi minor axis to the semi major axis.
Theory of micro-mechanical model
From a micromechanical point of view, pores and cracks
that contain fluids can be considered as inclusions
imbedded in the solid background of rocks. An inclusion
differs from its background in that 1) fluid and solid have
different physical properties (i.e., heterogeneity), and 2)
extra fluid pressure (e.g., due to thermal expansion of fluids
or hydrocarbon generation) may develop in inclusions.
According to Eshelby (1957), the extra pressure (denoted
as residue pressure), or its general form if inclusion
material is a solid (denoted as residue stress), can be
represented through the eigenstrain, which usually refers to
strain remaining in a body when the body is selfequilibrated. Indeed, heterogeneity problem can also be
represented as an equivalent eigenstrain problem (e.g., Xu,
1998). Here I follow the equivalent inclusion method
introduced by Mura (1987) to treat both heterogeneity and
residue fluid pressure as an eigenstrain problem and
calculate stress and strain of an inclusion in an extended
background with applied stress
at infinity (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Illustration of equivalent inclusion method.

Consider a background material with elastic stiffness (its

compliance being ), containing an infinitesimal spheroidal
inclusion with different stiffness
(its compliance being
) and residue stress . For fluids, the term residue stress
is interchangeable with residue pressure and can be

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Understanding geopressure mechanisms using micro-mechanics

expressed as
residue pressure and
residue strain

, where
is the magnitude of
is a unit tensor, and is linked to

Due to the presence of heterogeneity and residue stress, the
stress field of the inclusion deviates from the background
stress and can be expressed as (Mura, 1987):
where and
are, respectively, the perturbation of stress
and strain from the background (or applied) stress
strain , and the applied stress has
. Parameter
is the eigenstrain that is related to the strain perturbation
through the Eshelby tensor (Eshelby, 1957) as:
where a new eigenstrain is introduced as
Substituting equation 3 into equation 2 yields
[ (
)] (
Fluid pressure
Consider a closed inclusion where fluid is trapped, the
strain deformation of the inclusion can be given as
is the stress of the inclusion material, which is
also called fluid pressure if the inclusion is filled with fluid.
In such a case,
is given as
) ,
denotes the magnitude of the total fluid pressure
in the inclusion. Solving equations 4-5 yields
) (
, and
[ (
)] . Note the difference between the stress
of inclusion material
and residue pressure
. Here
has the contribution from both applied stress and residue
pressure. Also note that tensors , , , and depend on
the strength of the background material and geometry of
the inclusions such as the shape of pores and cracks.
Tensors and also depend on fluid properties.
Effective elasticity
After calculating the average stress and strain of the
system, I write the effective compliance as a function of
the applied stress and residue pressure:

denotes, respectively, the compliance of
the background material and the fluid. Parameter denotes
the porosity and
is the differential stress (or
commonly referred to as effective stress). It is clear that

. Note equation 7 was derived for dilute
concentration of inclusions where the interaction among
inclusions is ignored. To account for higher volume
concentration of pores and cracks, modeling schemes such
as differential effective medium (DEM) can be used.
Equation 7 suggests that effective velocity can be expressed

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through the stress state of the rock and residue pressure

generated in the inclusions. It also suggests that the vertical
effective stress alone (e.g., Bowers, 1995) may not be
sufficient to determine the effective elastic properties of
rocks for regions where tectonic forces become prominent.
In a special case where
is hydrostatic confining pressure
) where
is the magnitude of
the confining stress), equation 7 can be simplified as


is the normalized differential stress
is pore fluid pressure. Quantity
is the
residue pressure normalized by confining pressure, and

is the combination of
several components of tensor . As shown in equation 8,
the effective compliance reduces with the increase of the
normalized differential stress. Hence, as the confining
pressure increases, the effective velocities increase.
Interpretation of fluid pressure
Equation 6 suggests that fluid pressure is a function of the
microstructure and medium properties of rocks, as well as
applied stress and residue pressure. If residue pressure is
absent (
), it reduces to
, which is
consistent with pore pressure obtained by Xu (1998).
According to equation 6, the differential stress can be
written as
where the first term, (
) , is caused by the
heterogeneity of the medium, i.e., due to the difference
and . For example, if the inclusion material
has the same properties as the background (
), this
and hence (
. If the inclusion
material becomes extremely compliant ( ), tensor
reduces to 0 and approaches . Since in such cases the
inclusion material is too compliant to support any residue
stress (i.e.,
), the stress of inclusion material, ,
reduces to 0, making the inclusion behaving like a vacuum.
If fluid pressure deviates from hydrostatic pressure, then
abnormal pressure appears, which is also termed
overpressure when fluid pressure exceeds hydrostatic
pressure. As shown in Figure 2, hydrostatic pressure can be
given as
, where
is brine density, is

gravitational acceleration, and

is the reference depth
where the integration starts from, e.g., the mean seal level
in an offshore exploration case. In a 1D case where the
lithostatic stress can be obtained using vertical integration
of bulk density ( ) of rocks, we have

For regions where tectonic forces become significant such

as areas near salt that has irregular geometry, 1D
assumption of overburden stress can break down and hence
more sophisticated modeling of the stress field is needed.

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Understanding geopressure mechanisms using micro-mechanics

Figure 2 illustrates the relation between different types of

pressures. Here the abnormal pressure emerges at depth
and residue pressure starts to develop at depth . Hence,
starting from the reference hydrostatic pressure

, the abnormal pressure is given as

), where

of the corresponding matrix.

( ) stands for the trace

In a hydrostatic stress state where all three principle stress

components are identical (Figure 3a), a spherical pore
) becomes stiffest as the fluid pressure in the pore
becomes minimum. In a uniaxial (vertical) loading process
(Figure 3b), however, a spherical pore is not necessarily
stiffest since no lateral constraints are applied to the rock.
In such a case, the fluid pressure keeps dropping for
albeit gradually, as the aspect ratio increases.
Although not shown here, pore fluid pressure is also
influenced by other factors such as pore orientation and the
connectivity of the pore system. For example, in a closed
pore, fluid cannot escape, thus causing pressure buildup.
Micromechanical analysis of pressure mechanisms

Figure 2. Schematic plot showing abnormal pressure is influenced

by heterogeneity and residue pressure, and varies with depth.

Figure 3 shows the dependence of pore fluid pressure on

the aspect ratio (
) of a horizontally aligned
spheroidal pore in a constant solid background. A flat,
penny-shaped pore (
) is generally more compliant
than a round pore (
), thus making the pressure in a
flat pore higher than in a round pore. If
, fluid
pressure approaches the confining pressure or the
overburden stress, causing fluid pressure to be abnormally
high and drilling through this area more risky. If the
pressure buildup in a pore is higher than a critical strength
of the rock (e.g., leak-off point or fracture propagation
pressure), one would expect that new cracks or fractures
may initiate and even propagate.

Here I attempt to interpret a few mechanisms using the

proposed micromechanical model. During the early stage of
the compaction, sedimentary rocks usually contain pores
with high porosity. As sedimentation continues, increasing
overburden stress causes fluids being expelled out of the
pores and porosity reduces. If the sedimentation rate is
relatively low, or if the formation permeability is high
enough to allow free fluid flow out of the inclusion space,
the equilibrium between the pore fluid pressure and
external fluid pressure such as hydrostatic pressure is
maintained (Zhang, 2011). In such a case, the rock
undergoes normal compaction and can be treated as an
open pore system with drained boundary condition for the
fluids. The effective compliance can then be expressed as

) ].
If the sedimentation rate is relatively high or if formation
permeability becomes too low to allow free fluid flow, the
pore system starts to close and this marks the emergence of
disequilibrium compaction. For such a system containing
closed pores, the effective compliance can be written as

) ],
denotes the stiffness of the fluid in a tensorial
form. Equation 11 can also be rewritten in terms of applied
stress, as shown in equation 7 (with
set to 0).
A transition zone usually occurs where normal compaction
is giving place to disequilibrium compaction. In these
rocks, both open and closed inclusions coexist. Effective
compliance is then a combination of equations 10 and 11.

Figure 3. Normalized pore pressure as a function of pore aspect

for a) confining stress
psi, and b) uniaxial
(vertical) stress
psi. Model parameters: background
g/cc; pore fluid
g/cc. Here the aspect ratio is defined as
/ so that it varies over a wide range of 0.001~100.

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Under favorable geological conditions, hydrocarbons can

generate from thermal maturation of kerogen in source
rocks. This can cause a significant increase of volume of
pore fluids and results in overpressure. Alternatively,
thermal expansion of fluids can cause pressure to increase
in a closed pore. Effective compliance due to this
mechanism can be described using equation 7.
Note that the microstructure of rocks evolves with the
geological processes. For example, an exponential

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Understanding geopressure mechanisms using micro-mechanics

relationship between porosity and effective stress was used

by Hart et al. (1995) to characterize the reduction of
porosity at geologic depths for normal compaction process.
The method can be used to simulate several compaction
processes such as normal compaction, disequilibrium
compaction, and thermal fluid expansion. In the following
example, I use Monte-Carlo simulation to calculate
effective velocity and fluid pressure. I assume that the
rocks contain pores and cracks characterized as spheroids
with different aspect ratios. To account for the reduction of
inclusion space, I assume that porosity and crack density
generally follow exponential trends over the depth range of
5000-19000 ft. Figures 4b-d show modeling results of
effective velocity and pressure profiles. Also shown are
modeling parameters such as volume concentration (Figure
4a) and alignment (Figure 5) of pores and cracks.

Figure 4. Simulated depth-varying physical properties: a) Porosity

(blue) and crack density (red), b) effective vertical P-wave
velocity, c) hydrostatic- (blue), fluid- (red), and overburden(black) pressures, and d) hydrostatic- (blue), fluid- (red), and
overburden- (black) pressure gradients.

Figure 5. Pore and crack alignment at various depth.

Normal compaction starts from the mudline at 5000 ft

where fluids are free to escape out of pores and cracks. As
sedimentation continues, crack density drops more quickly
with burial depth, which reflects the closure of some cracks
due to increased overburden pressure. As cracks close and
porosity reduces, velocity increases (Figure 4b). A
transition zone appears at 9000-11000 ft where velocity
increases significantly since rocks become stiffer as the
pore system changes from drained to undrained conditions.

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Below the depth of 11000 ft, rocks experience

disequilibrium compaction where porosity reduces slowly
and velocity varies more gradually. Note that
disequilibrium compaction results in elevated fluid
pressure, indicating that overpressure is observed and fluid
pressure gradient is above hydrostatic pressure gradient
(Figure 4c-d). Thermal fluid expansion kicks in below
19000 ft, causing the development of residue pressure.
When fluid pressure is sufficiently high, new cracks may
initiate and propagate, resulting in significant drop of
velocity. Figure 6 shows velocity as functions of effective
stress and density for the simulated geologic processes. For
example, velocity increases with effective stress during
disequilibrium compaction (loading process) and decreases
during fluid expansion (unloading process). Numerical
simulation also suggests that the change of density during
fluid expansion is negligible, which is similar to the trend B
(unloading) discussed by Swarbrick (2012).

Figure 6. Effective vertical P-wave velocity as a function of

effective stress and density.

In this study, an inclusion-based micromechanical model
was used to characterize rock properties (effective velocity
and fluid pressure). The proposed method extends Xus
(1998) poroelastic model for the undrained fluid system by
accounting for residue pressures due to, e.g., thermal fluid
expansion and hydrocarbon generation. Heterogeneity due
to the presence of inclusions and residue pressure in
inclusions are treated consistently as an eigenstrain
problem, and effective elasticity of the medium is
expressed through applied stress and residue pressure.
I analyzed the microstructure of rocks under various
geological conditions and used the model to characterize
velocity and fluid pressure for various mechanisms that
have been proposed for pressure effects, e.g., normal
compaction, disequilibrium compaction, and thermal fluid
expansion. Other possible mechanisms such as clay
diagenesis are out of the scope of this work.
The author would like to thank Statoil for the permission to
publish this work. Thanks also go to (but not limited to)
Ivar Brevik, Chez Uzoh, Hege M. Nordgrd Bols, Tom
Sun, Dan Ebrom, and Cem Ozan.

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Note: This reference list is a copy-edited version of the reference list submitted by the author. Reference lists for the 2014
SEG Technical Program Expanded Abstracts have been copy edited so that references provided with the online metadata for
each paper will achieve a high degree of linking to cited sources that appear on the Web.

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